Cornelius AdebahrNonresident Fellow at Carnegie Europe

Paraphrasing the anthropologist Margaret Mead, we should never doubt that a coalition of committed countries can change European foreign policy; “indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Mentioning the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in this context is to score cheap points, as it is the EU’s biggest—some would say only—foreign policy success of the past two decades or more. Yet, the years-long negotiations have brought an acceptance of the E3 format of British, French, and German leadership, now even including a non–EU member state.

The Franco-German so-called Normandy format on the conflict in eastern Ukraine has been less successful, though not for Paris and Berlin failing to lead the EU but because—ultimately—Russia is not interested in conflict settlement, and the EU doesn’t have the means to force it.

That points to a crucial ingredient of any effective coalition of the willing: the readiness of its members to bring their own resources to bear in the broader European interest.

This is where the concept usefully departs from its Bush-junior-tainted origins around the 2003 Iraq invasion: if it is to work for Europe, it cannot be a motley band of countries following a determined superpower, but has to include some form of strategic calculation of why it would be in the coalition’s shared interest—while also benefiting the EU as a whole—to invest resources into resolving a given conflict.

By putting skin in the game, the avant-garde can ask the remaining member states to go along or to come up with a counterproposal that they in turn would lead on. Either way, Europe gets to act.

Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

There is no doubt that the EU’s ambition to be more geopolitical requires more flexibility. Case in point: Cyprus’s recent refusal to sign off on sanctions against Belarusian officials unless the EU would also impose sanctions on Turkey.

The unanimity requirement not only means that EU foreign policy frequently has to strive for the lowest common denominator—especially on thorny issues like sanctions or human rights—it also risks making it easier for hostile outside actors to undermine EU action.

Given the plethora of serious crises globally and in Europe’s own neighborhood, we cannot afford to wait for EU institutional reform—such as the idea of introducing qualified majority voting on foreign policy—to bring about necessary change. Instead, France and Germany must press forward with smaller ad hoc constellations of member states to advance particular issues where more action is needed. To a certain extent, this is already occurring.

To be successful, these “flexible coalitions” must involve the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy to ensure legitimacy and to not undermine the cohesion of the twenty-seven EU member states. In the future, thinking more about ways of including the UK—for instance, through the burgeoning E3 format—should also be a priority.

Robert CooperUK Council Member at the European Council on Foreign Relations

EU foreign policy is in trouble. That’s normal. The mistake is to think that foreign policy is like instant coffee and that there are magic solutions. Politics is the art of the possible and, a lot of the time, nothing is possible.

The first rule is to look after yourself and your friends; the second is to wait and look for opportunities. “Coalitions of the willing” sounds good, but it means division—and that breaks the first principle. Like it or not, as the world is, the EU can be effective only if it works—one way or another—with the United States. So we have to wait.

Liana FixProgram Director of the International Affairs Department of the Körber Foundation

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell put it succinctly: “Our neighborhood has become engulfed in flames, from Libya to Belarus.” Are coalitions of the willing the firefighters we urgently need at the moment?

Let’s take the example of the crises in Eastern Europe. On Belarus, the Baltic states act as a coalition of the willing: they announced travel bans on President Alexander Lukashenko and Belarusian officials ahead of the EU, as an example and to push other member states toward action. This is an important signal and driving force. But the full power of the EU will only be unleashed if all twenty-seven member states agree on sanctions against the Belarusian regime.

Six years earlier, we had the same situation in Ukraine. Germany led mediation efforts in the Normandy format and built a minilateral coalition with France. But the talks got more punch when the implementation of the Minsk agreements, aimed at ending the war in eastern Ukraine, was eventually tied to the EU sanctions regime. Having the EU behind its back significantly strengthened Germany’s clout in the negotiations.

What’s the lesson learned? Coalitions of the willing can act as the vanguard of EU foreign policy and take flexible, quick, and ambitious action. But they must be followed up with a united European stance and tied to institutional frameworks.

Yes, unity limits ambition in the short term. But in the long term, the EU exerts its greatest leverage when it acts together. Coalitions of the willing are necessary at the beginning of any policy initiative, but they should not take over EU foreign policy making and give other actors the opportunity to divide and rule in the EU. This is exactly what Russia and China are looking for.

EU foreign policy making needs consensus—and it is up to member states whether consensus results in a lowest-common-denominator policy or a more ambitious outcome.

Caroline de GruyterEuropean Affairs Correspondent for NRC Handelsblad

No, on the contrary: coalitions of the willing would weaken EU foreign policy further. If anything, we need majority voting on foreign policy issues—not groups that tend to solidify opposition or initiative into hard blocks of cemented stubbornness.

I know, building alliances within the EU is the thing to do nowadays. In a large, pluriform Europe with so many things on its plate, it is becoming increasingly hard to find consensus or even stick to existing agreements—on migration, sanctions on Belarus, or whatever.

Especially since the euro crisis and Brexit, the political ballgame in Europe has changed into a game between blocks. Frugals, Visegrad countries, transatlantics, the South, Mitteleuropa—we see a proliferation of blocking groups that provide shelter for small countries desperate to form a counterweight to the increasing power of Germany and France.

This is understandable. But these shelters, as we have seen with both the so-called frugals and the southerners during negotiations on the EU budget and coronavirus recovery package, often turn into cozy echo chambers that make it harder to reach out and find a compromise.

EU foreign policy needs unity, not more division. There’s only one way to do this: introduce majority voting. This is needed. And soon.

Paul HaenleDirector of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

Coordinated approaches to international issues by coalitions of willing liberal democracies are increasingly important.

With respect to China, the European Union and the United States—as well as other like-minded partners—are responsible for leading the effort to build on shared interests in establishing more fair and reciprocal economic and trade relations, upholding human rights and democratic values, and responding to Beijing’s more aggressive foreign policy approaches.

While Brussels and Washington do not always completely align on these issues, they have a number of overlapping interests and concerns. The ongoing EU-China negotiations over the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, for example, covers many issues that would be front and center in any future U.S.-China phase-two trade deal. Brussels and Washington should build a united front when it comes to negotiations with Beijing over important economic, trade, and investment issues.

The UK’s recent push to establish a D10 alliance of leading democracies illustrates that there are a number of other issue areas—including the rollout of 5G mobile networks and supply chain vulnerabilities—around which effective coalitions of the willing could be formed.

Such approaches will be needed to protect against Beijing’s policies that do not conform to international rules and norms and make it difficult for U.S. and European companies to engage in fair competition with Chinese firms.

Shada IslamIndependent EU Commentator and Managing Director of New Horizons Project

The EU is clearly at its strongest and most convincing and has the most global impact when the twenty-seven countries speak with one voice but also really act together. That’s the nice theory. The reality is different.

In the case of relations with the United States, China, Russia, Africa, and the Middle East—when the stakes are high in terms of prestige, power, and money—achieving that unanimity is impossible. So let’s be realistic.

First, let’s use EU countries’ bilateral networks—their historical, geographical, and cultural connections with other nations—to boost Europe’s collective outreach. For instance, why worry if it was French President Emmanuel Macron and not European Council President Charles Michel who was the first EU leader to visit Lebanon after the devastating explosion on August 4, 2020? France has deep ties with Lebanon and the EU can use that connection for good.

Second, EU coalitions of the willing—and decisions by qualified majority voting—are inevitable. They are also essential if Europe is to matter in this challenging post-pandemic environment and not be relegated to the role of passive bystander.

Agnieszka LeguckaSenior Research Fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs

EU foreign policy has always been a mixture of high ambitions and even greater frustrations. It is either criticized for a lack of results, for slow decisionmaking, or for a lack of decisions. Would a coalition of the willing solve external problems such as the brutal suppression of protests in Belarus, the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, or the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean?

EU members do not agree, for example, on sanctions against Turkey or Belarus. In such situations, the proposal to use a coalition of the willing is tempting. In the short term, it can be an effective way of responding to international challenges.

But can this apply to sanctions? After the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, with the Kremlin’s lawless use of a chemical weapon, many EU states adopted national restrictions against Russia.

It is possible to adopt national sanctions in coalitions of the willing, for example against the Belarusian regime, but in the long term, EU-wide sanctions are a powerful tool of influence and, despite repeated criticism, an effective instrument of the union’s foreign policy. Sanctions are a form of dialogue with external actors, and they say a lot about us as a community.

Denis MacShaneFormer UK Minister for Europe

Has the time come to admit that ten years after the European External Action Service was set up, now with its third high representative, Europe still has no effective foreign policy?

It is easy to blame the United States, but America’s post-1945 commitment to partnership with Europe has faded as Europe refuses to pay for its own defense or is unable to agree on how to handle Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić, or even Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

The G7 or G20 should be renamed the G Zero. Brexit Britain will soon have more bureaucrats checking customs declarations than soldiers in its army. France has some military profile, but Germany has become a foreign policy vegan with about as much influence on geopolitics as Switzerland.

Coalitions of the willing sound good but will meet equal and opposite coalitions of the unwilling—the chances, for example, of Germany being firm on Putin or Erdoğan are zero.

Europe cannot even solve the relatively minor problem of the Western Balkans as five EU member states continue to pretend that Kosovo doesn’t exist. This takes European foreign policy into the realm of surrealism.

In the end, foreign policy is the expression of national interests, values, and history. Sadly, it won’t be done by the EU for some time yet.

John O’BrennanProfessor at Maynooth University and Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration

The EU has rarely faced a more daunting set of external challenges. In particular, the aggressive posture of China, Russia, and Turkey in international relations presents an acute set of policy problems for the EU.

Coalitions of the willing materialize in good part because of the failure to achieve EU unity on given issues and the structural features of the EU system that militate against achieving unity.

They may prove useful in chivying the European Council along at certain points or creating enough media pressure to demand that the EU focus on specific problems. But they cannot adequately substitute for a genuinely unified EU approach. More often than not, they reflect subsets of soft power within the EU which, predictably, struggle when they confront the hard-power logics of geopolitical competition.

It is only a decisive move toward qualified majority voting—as called for again in the State of the Union address of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on September 16—that might create the kind of qualitative structural change in the EU’s ability to act externally.

Absent that kind of key change, EU coalitions of the willing will struggle to achieve anything of material significance.

Gianni RiottaVisiting Professor at Princeton University and Director of Luiss University Data Lab

Liberal pundits are holding their breath hoping, come November, for the victory of U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden and then to see the Western world, NATO, and the multinational post–World War II order miraculously restored.

This will not happen. Indeed, a second administration by U.S. President Donald Trump would definitely uproot any resemblance of U.S.-European special relationship, dismantling NATO, cozying up to Putin, pointlessly feuding with China, and pushing for a Middle East settlement with no role for EU diplomacy.

But even the internationalist ticket of Biden and Kamala Harris, his running mate, will have to contend with a divided U.S. Congress and the painful fence-mending after four turbulent years. So, Europeans have to raise to the occasion on their own, but are they ready?

For sure German Chancellor Angela Merkel is. Raised under the oppressive Kremlin shadow, the chancellor bravely saved Navalny’s life, openly defying Putin. But even in a post-Trumpian world, Europeans still need a focused common international strategy, defense, diplomacy, and a network of independent digital infrastructures not to be irrelevant vis-à-vis Moscow and Beijing.

Cornered by the coronavirus, the EU unexpectedly managed to launch an innovative economic program to ward off another recession. Will this impromptu elan become an EU trademark? I still hope so.

Ben TonraFull Professor of International Relations at the University College Dublin

In a sense, such coalitions have always been with us—whether in the various like-minded groups at the diplomatic level (E3, Normandy format, etc.) or variegated engagement in EU peace-support operations.

My own reservations are that institutionalizing such heterogeneity further risks leading to even greater fragmentation of the EU’s global identity and capacity.

Coalitions of the willing also presupposes a certain passivity on the part of those not participating. That does not appear to be the issue we’re witnessing. Rather, the union faces an internal challenge of, essentially, an assertive “de-Europeanization” within the Common Foreign and Security Policy. What we have seen in so many policy portfolios in the EU is not simply disagreement over policy substance—which has to be worked through with time and effort—but in too many instances a deliberate and obdurate blocking of consensus.

I would rather see such dynamics challenged directly rather than design complex work-arounds. I don’t underestimate the difficulty here, or indeed the implications of a direct clash, whether here or over rule-of-law issues. The principle to which I hold is that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Pierre VimontSenior Fellow at Carnegie Europe

Coalitions of the willing are the new buzzwords, a concept whose time has come for EU foreign policy.

With European leaders calling for a genuine geopolitical Europe, in stark contrast to today’s EU diplomacy that is increasingly embroiled in endless debates and divisions, a heavy dose of flexibility seems indispensable. It would stir a new kind of agile and proactive foreign policy by enrolling those member states which have the experience of world affairs and are willing to play a more active role on the international stage. And it would help overcome the unanimity rule, which too often slows down or obstructs European diplomatic efforts.

Obviously, coalitions of the willing run the risk of deepening divisions among Europeans. The process must therefore keep informed those union members that decide to stay out. It also has to leave the door open to those willing to join later.

Lastly, to preserve a coherent European diplomacy, it needs to have the EU high representative and his team on board as the UK, Germany, and France did when they launched the nuclear discussions with Iran in 2003. Flexibility can only be efficient if it is also open, transparent, and tolerant.